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The real reason that politician-in-a-disabled-carpark story is outrageous

Disability Rights Commissioner Paula Tesoriero on what the recent flap over a National candidate parking in a disabled space reveals about our attitudes towards disability. 

It’d be easy to dismiss the recent news story about disabled National candidate Katrina Bungard, who’s been called out for parking in a disabled carpark she’s entitled to use. Someone just made a mistake in hassling her. Someone was having a bad day, or misjudged the situation.

But when she says she has been “regularly reprimanded” for using a carpark for disabled people – including dobbing her in to her boss, the prime minister – I start to wonder if her story is far more serious. I can’t help thinking that Bungard’s story is a sad reflection on how we view disabled people in New Zealand. Having been in my new role as the Disability Rights Commissioner for six weeks, I am absolutely clear that attitudes must change. Fast.

I think Bungard was spot on when she surmised that people “assume because I’m a politician I don’t have a disability”. I’d desperately love to say she got it wrong. But sadly, I think what’s underlying her statement is some very common thinking.

It seems many of us assume that successful people would never have a disability. So when we see a car belonging to a political candidate parking in a disabled car park, we are surprised  – so much so that we jump to the conclusion that the car is there illegally.

Well guess what: disabled New Zealanders are politicians. In fact, we are lawyers, doctors, scientists, engineers, artists, accountants, entrepreneurs, teachers and athletes. We should never be surprised that disabled people are successful. It should be business as usual.

So why isn’t it? Is it that there are not enough disabled people in top roles in the public sector and in business? We are there, further down the ranks, but do we lack role models in the most visible, high level positions?

Is it that we don’t champion the success of disabled people enough? We celebrate our paralympians (and so we should), but do we tell enough stories about the success of disabled people right across the spectrum of careers? Maybe it’s because those people who are just doing their thing, and doing it brilliantly, don’t want to highlight their disability. I understand that, because for many years I thought the way to success was to hide my disability.

But we can’t hide anymore. The outcomes for disabled New Zealanders on a number of fronts are not what they should be. This was brought home to me with this week’s release of the Household Labour Force (HLFS) results, which showed the rate of disabled people in the labour force is 25.2%, compared to 72.6% of non-disabled.

This simply is not good enough. I want to see the disabled tall poppies shout from the rooftops, I want to see the spotlight shined on disabled doctors, lawyers and accountants and so on, so that diversity in business and beyond is celebrated and recognised as business as usual.

More importantly, I want the 42% of disabled youth who are not in any form of education or employment to see what’s possible and for others to see what’s possible for them.

This means creating the right environment: the policy settings, supports and attitudes that enable all disabled New Zealanders to thrive.

It is also important to remember that there is no single disability “look”. If you’re concerned about a car parked in a disability spot, check whether there’s a mobility sticker on its dashboard.

When the public see disabled people in public roles and being successful in a range of ways then, just maybe, no one will stop and wonder why a politician is parked in a disabled carpark.


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